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FAQ: Twitter's New Rules On Third-Party Ads

Earlier today, Twitter posted new rules about how third party ad companies can insert ads into the Twitter “timeline” of tweets. Is this a death knell for those third party companies? Not necessarily, but it’s sure a crimp in some of their plans. Below, what the new rules seem to ban and allow.

The Background

Battle Lines Being Drawn Over Twitter-Based Ads is our earlier news story that summarizes key points in the new rules, which you can read yourself here on the Twitter blog and in Twitter’s API terms of service.

The API is crucial in all this. The Twitter API (Application Programming Interface) is a way for anyone to automatically get back information from Twitter. The API is used by companies such as Seesmic and HootSuite, which make “clients” that allow you to interact with Twitter without going to its web site. The API is also used by search services such as OneRiot or Collecta. Any company using the Twitter API is subject to its terms — and its terms now have new rules about how Twitter-related ads can be shown.

No Third-Party Ads In Timelines

There is one major new rule, and it’s pretty simple. To quote the Twitter blog post:

We will not allow any third party to inject paid tweets into a timeline on any service that leverages the Twitter API.

What’s not so simple is understanding what the “timeline” means.

What’s A Timeline?

I’ve generally thought of the Twitter “timeline” as the tweets I see (or anyone else sees) from their followers. For example:

That picture above is my Twitter account as managed through the popular HootSuite tool. It shows two columns. The one on the left, “Home Feed,” is what I think of as my Twitter timeline. It shows all the tweets from people I follow, with the newest tweets pushing “down” the older ones over time. Hence why I consider it my timeline.

The second column shows tweets that match the word “smx,” the search engine marketing conference series that I oversee. Like many people, I use Twitter to monitor brand mentions. I think of that column not as my timeline but rather search results. I have many different search terms that I monitor like this.

That’s what I think of as a timeline. But what does Twitter consider a timeline, in relation to its new rules.

Search Results = Timeline = Subject To New Rules

Are search results, like those shown in my second column above, considered a timeline and subject to the new rules? Yes. Twitter told me via email:

We are talking about any stream of tweets. A user timeline, a search timeline, etc.

Timeline = ANY Twitter Information

In fact, anything that uses the Twitter API to produce any type of “stream” of results from Twitter is subject to the new rules. Again, from what Twitter PR emailed me in response to follow-up questions:

No third party can inject paid tweets into a tweet stream that uses the Twitter API. Period….

This is a restriction on injecting any paid tweets into a tweet stream that leverages the Twitter API, where a stream may be user based, search based, or other.

Who’s Impacted? For One, TweetUp

What’s all this mean for the growing third-party Twitter ad industry? TweetUp just formally opened today, and for its birthday, Twitter’s new rules seem to put the kibosh on much of its model. TweetUp’s designed to insert paid ads into search-based Twitter streams that would show within Twitter clients and on web sites.

Postscript: Soon after I posted this, I heard from TweetUp COO Jon Kraft. Kraft stressed that the “Recommended Tweeters” widget that it launched today doesn’t depend on the Twitter API and so wouldn’t be impacted by the new rules. Here’s an example of the widget in place at TechCrunch:

Kraft also said his company has other products that won’t be impacted, telling me:

I won’t say all of our plans aren’t affected. But only a very small percentage are. We’re confident we can operate within the framework

We’ll see. When I spoke to founder Bill Gross earlier this month, a major component seemed to be taking Twitter’s search results and redistributing those using TweetUp’s own relevancy ranking — which would include paid tweets. That would require using the Twitter API. Moreover if Twitter decides that TweetUp “leverages” its API in any way for a TweetUp product, it potentially might cut-off that access.

Who’s Not Impacted? Individuals…

Any company (or person) who inserts ads into Twitter streams without using the Twitter API are exempted from the rules. The best example of this are individuals who may tweet ads to their followers. Kim Kardashian has been widely reported as charging $10,000 per tweet. As long as she’s putting these out directly to her followers, she should be good. When I asked Twitter about this, I was told:

We don’t seek to control what users tweet, and users own their tweets.

Who’s Not Impacted? Paid Tweet Brokers, Sort Of….

That leads to what I’d call paid tweet brokering companies, of which Ad.ly and 140 Proof are examples. Both allow for advertisers to enlist individuals to spread their messages (Ad.ly lists accounts that range from Kardashian to E! Online to LeVar Burton. FYI, I just signed up today purely to see how the system works. I’m not taking ads through it).

These companies do “inject” paid tweets into Twitter streams, but they may not do it directly. Instead, if they have the individuals themselves do the tweets, without making use of the Twitter API, then they may be meeting the new rules.

Of course, technically individuals who use any type of Twitter client are making use of the Twitter API. But then again, individuals on Twitter aren’t “third parties” to Twitter. They’re the second party in a Twitter “transaction,” with Twitter being the first party.

To Come: A Crackdown On Paid Tweets?

Personally, I suspect we’ll see Twitter add further rules designed to restrict the role paid tweet brokers can play, perhaps having terms that prevent individuals from using such services. Currently those terms have no such restrictions, nor could I find restrictions in Twitter’s help documentation.

I expect this may come because today’s move by Twitter seems designed to protect its results (timelines, streams, whatever you want to call them) from being infiltrated by ads other than the ones it has controlled or approved.

That might be because Twitter doesn’t want competition against its own in-house Promoted Tweets program. It might be because it has legitimate concerns that ads, if not carefully delivered, will pollute or destroy the relevancy of Twitter’s results, thus harming Twitter and the greater Twitter ecosystem. Twitter itself said as much in its blog post today:

As our primary concern is the long-term health and value of the network, we have and will continue to forgo near-term revenue opportunities in the service of carefully metering the impact of Promoted Tweets on the user experience. It is critical that the core experience of real-time introductions and information is protected for the user and with an eye toward long-term success for all advertisers, users and the Twitter ecosystem…

Third party ad networks are not necessarily looking to preserve the unique user experience Twitter has created. They may optimize for either market share or short-term revenue at the expense of the long-term health of the Twitter platform. For example, a third party ad network may seek to maximize ad impressions and click through rates even if it leads to a net decrease in Twitter use due to user dissatisfaction.

I think we’ve got a combination of both happening.

So Twitter Hates Outside Developers & Companies?

When Twitter acquired the Tweetie iPhone application in April, it caused many developers who create Twitter applications or who leverage Twitter in other ways to wonder if Twitter would continue to “favor” its own products. Now today’s move, regardless of the relevancy motives behind it, favors Twitter’s Promoted Tweets program. It will cause some developers and partners to once again wonder if Twitter may make them obsolete. As Hunch-cofounder and tech investor Chris Dixon tweeted:

Twitter is like a drunk guy with an uzi killing partners left and right. Expect investment in ecosystem to drop significantly.

There’s no doubt the development community has helped Twitter succeed in ways that it would not have reached on its own. Twitter itself has acknowledged this many times, very vocally so, including at its recent Chirp conference for developers. Twitter owes them — and needs to keep them reassured. And several developers and companies I talked with at the Chirp conference did seem reassured and felt they could survive even while competing against Twitter itself.

There’s also an argument that since March, Twitter has provided its API access to its “firehose” of data, rather than charging millions as it does for Google and Bing to make use of it, so its not unreasonable for the company to ensure it’s bottom line isn’t yanked out from under it. Twitter stressed part of this in its blog post:

It is important to keep in mind that Twitter bears all the costs of maintaining the network, protecting the Tweet stream against spam, supporting user requests, and scaling the service. Indeed, Twitter will bear many of the support costs associated with any third-party paid Tweets, as Twitter receives support emails related to anything a user sees in a tweet stream. The third-party bears few of these costs by comparison.

Also see Twitter’s Ad Crackdown Alienates Developers… Again at Mashable for a preliminary round-up of some developer reactions.

The “Good” Third Party Ads — Those “Around” The Timeline

It’s important to stress that Twitter isn’t banning all ads in association with tweets. Those who make Twitter clients or Twitter search services can still show ads, as long as those ads are placed “around” the Twitter stream. As Twitter blogged:

Companies are selling real-time display ads or other kinds of mobile ads around the timelines on many Twitter clients, and we derive no explicit value from those ads. That’s fine. We imagine there will be all sorts of other third-party monetization engines that crop up in the vicinity of the timeline.

Here’s an example of this from OneRiot:

The results on the left come from Twitter, as well as other sources. The results on the right that the arrow points at — with the terrible name of “Featured Content” rather than something clearer like “Sponsored Links” —  are OneRiot’s own ads. These ads are separated from the Twitter results and so would appear acceptable to Twitter.

I specifically asked Twitter about this:

It also sounds like you can place ads “around” the timeline, as with the mobile ads – just not inside the timeline itself

I was told:

You can place ads around the timeline, yes.

For clients like HootSuite, Seesmic or TweetDeck — which display multiple “columns” of results all at once — they should be able to show ads next to Twitter results, if they so choose. In fact, TweetUp might be able to change some of its model to support this. Rather than adding to Twitter’s results, TweetUp might be able to provide pure ad-streams to be shown next to Twitter resutls.

For “single column” clients, such as those popular on mobile devices, life is trickier. Ads really would have to be shown above or below the Twitter timeline, and it’s unclear right how much separation or what exact formatting would be deemed acceptable.

How About A Cut?

Of course, while third-party ads “around” tweets might be acceptable, it appears Twitter wants a cut of those. Its new API terms, as Business Insider points out, seem to require some type of payment — though the exact amount isn’t stated and probably will vary (and only be imposed on those using the API enough to show up on Twitter’s radar screen):

We encourage you to create advertising opportunities around Twitter content that are compliant with these Rules. In cases where Twitter content is the basis (in whole or in part) of the advertising sale, we require you to compensate us (recoupable against any fees payable to Twitter for data licensing). For example, you may sell sponsorships or branding around gadgets or iframes that include Tweets and other customized visualizations of Twitter. Please contact us for questions and information at twitter_ads@twitter.com, or to notify us of an advertising opportunity.

Over at All Things D, Peter Kafka also explores this issue, having talked with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. He comes away finding Twitter still has much to clear up.

Mixing It Up Doesn’t Help

It’s also important to note that many clients and services provide access to more than Twitter results. Take the OneRiot example above. It mines “real time” information from more than Twitter. However, Twitter says the new rules apply to all of OneRiot’s results, even if they’re only partially powered by Twitter.

To be clear, I did ask about this as a follow-up:

Some timelines mix Twitter results with results from other services like Facebook. My assumption is that if they pull from the Twitter API, the same rules apply regardless of the mixture.

And was told:

We will not allow any third party to inject paid tweets into a timeline on any service that leverages the Twitter API.

FYI, OneRiot has its own blog post up that “applauds” the Twitter change and effectively says “this doesn’t apply to us,” reassurance especially designed for those considering carrying OneRiot’s ads. That’s true to the degree that OneRiot-powered ads are kept clearly separated from Twitter’s timeline.

What About Google, Yahoo and Bing?

The major search engines are a special case. They don’t use the Twitter API under its standard terms, so it would seem they’re exempt from today’s rules. When I asked Twitter about this, I was told:

We also have specific relationships with Yahoo and others who aren’t using the standard API that cover a broad range of services and behaviors.

So while today’s rules don’t apply specifically to the major search engines, there are other rules they follow.

More About Twitter Ads

To understand more about the evolving Twitter ad space, I’d strongly encourage reading the articles below that I wrote earlier this month. They go into depth about what Twitter is doing with its own program, what some third-parties are doing such as TweetUp and how the entire space is changing:

Also see related news on today’s announcement from Twitter on Techmeme.

Postscript (May 25): Ad.ly now has a blog post up saying it is within the new rules:

Since inception, Ad.ly has, and still is operating under Twitter’s approved guidelines and terms of service for advertising on its platform, so it’s business as usual for us.

Meanwhile, TweetUp, Sponsored Tweets say they dodge Twitter’s new restrictions at SocialBeat recaps two other companies saying that they’re within the rules. 140 Proof is cited as saying they’re talking to Twitter.

However, just because a company says it follows Twitter’s new rules doesn’t necessarily mean that Twitter would agree. The problem is that Twitter, so far, hasn’t issued any type of official stamps of approval. Nor do I expect it will, not immediately. Over time, I expect we may see it announce agreements with companies high on its radar screen.

Even then, I expect we’ll see many companies left in a state of unfortunate limbo, where they can’t get Twitter to rule if they’re “OK” or not. They’ll have to rely on proving access to the Twitter API. If Twitter’s NOT happy with them, then it will block their API access.

Stay tuned.

Postscript 2 (May 25): Twitter has sent out this update:

After releasing our updated API Terms of Service and talking with some folks, we realized one portion was causing a great deal of confusion: the parenthetical, “(in whole or in part)” in the following line :

In cases where Twitter content is the basis (in whole or in part) of the advertising sale, we require you to compensate us (recoupable against any fees payable to Twitter for data licensing).

We’ve removed “(in whole or in part)” and changed the sentence to read “In cases where Twitter content is the primary basis of the advertising sale,…” to hopefully clear up confusion.   The policy remains the same — if Twitter content is the primary basis of the advertising sale, we require a commercial relationship. It’s important to note that just because there is Twitter content on a site, for example a Twitter widget, that does not mean we will require a commercial relationship. We encourage folks to find innovative ways to display Twitter content, and we aren’t interested in tracking down each and every implementation in order to be compensated.

Postscript, May 26: In a new blog post, TweetUp says: “We completely comply with the new terms of service and we look forward to working with Twitter and all of our partners to enhance the Twitter ecosystem.”

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